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In the News Report From Haiti

January 25, 2010

VIDEO -- Correspondent Martin Smith's interview (Jan 21) on PBS Newshour. Smith's team is producing an in-depth report which FRONTLINE will air in the near future.

DISPATCH -- Below from co-producer Marcela Gaviria (1/20/10)

The nights of Port-au-Prince are pitch black, yet filled by a cacophony of sounds. After sunset, you can hear the sound of thousands of refugees singing hymns as they lull themselves to sleep on the debris and trash strewn streets. As the night sets deep, the sounds of howling dogs and C-130s, landing and taking off, takes over.

Aunt Fifi's home in Delmas 5, our modest base which sits perched above the airport, rattles every time a plane flies overhead. But then this morning at 6:03 am, just at sunrise, when the sound of hooting owls and crowing roosters was picking up, the earth growled -- and then our house rattled. The perfume bottles on the crowded dresser drawer clinked together, the windows shook, and in a matter of seconds, everybody in the house was bolting towards the courtyard.

There have been over sixty aftershocks since the earthquake hit Leogande January 12th. But this one registered 5.9. Another earthquake -- a small one. The epicenter over 30 kilometers away.

At a makeshift camp just down the hill, scores of refugees panicked. Their cries carried up the street. My housemates, two Haitian brothers whom I know from New York, a photographer, and a group of young nurses from Orlando, Florida, wondered if the wall next to us would withstand another tremor.

A few miles away, in the upscale neighborhood of Petionville, a Portuguese journalist was so startled by the quake, he jumped out his second floor window. I learned that hours later from a nurse at the University Hospital near Champs du Mars. Nurse Betty told me he was the first journalist to be evacuated from Haiti. He's now being treated on the USS Comfort which sits just off Haitian shores.

At the University Hospital, the quake caused another sort of panic. Fearing that the already unstable main building would collapse, hundreds of patients were moved to the outside courtyard. Now, every inch of open space is cramped with rickety beds, soiled mattresses and provisional cots. It's a sea of amputees, bandages steeped with yellow pus. Flies and trash everywhere. And yet there is little moaning. These patients have survived a quake, have withstood being trapped under rubble for hours, days. They've lost loved ones. One patient says of his stump, "C'est la vie."

The inner courtyard is shaded by a few large oak and mango trees. Sheets have been tied together to provide some shade. There is a woman trying to breast feed her newborn baby. An old man with soiled underwear. A teenager with silk pink pajamas stained with pus from her amputation at the shoulder. A young boy, stares at his bleeding stump. A man comforts his baby girl who has lost both her legs. A woman taps me on the shoulder. She implores me in Creole to find some help. Her son has already lost his leg above the knee. His other leg is swelling up, the skin parting. Another amputation imminent.

The number of patients grows by the hour. Cars arrive with victims that feared losing their limbs if they sought medical care. But they come now. They know gangrene and septicemia can take their lives. As cars zoom up the driveway, recently operated patients lying on the entrance, lean in, to avoid being grazed by the cars.

And today, eleven days after the earthquake, an 86-year-old woman has been pulled out of the rubble. She is sunken, all bones, barely breathing. Hundreds of flies, as if they could smell death, hover close. A nurse must clean the maggots off her private parts to place a foley catheter. The old woman will be flown to USS Comfort. The nurse treating her, a young Haitian woman called RN Gardine, says "The doctor says she won't make it. But who knows? She fought this long. "

The courtyard is swarming with Scientologists, flown in by John Travolta. They all wear bright yellow shirts that read "Something can be done about it." They take pictures of the wounded and of each other. A young man documents their every move with a Sony Camcorder. They talk to the patients in English, and get responses in Creole. They hand out literature in French. "How to clean your wound," By L. Ron Hubbard. I ask a young woman with blonde hair and a nose job if they are trained for this. "We aren't, but we'll help with anything." I ask her what her mission is. "To provide grief counseling," she says.

Walter, a trained paramedic with the New York City Fire Department, has been flown into Haiti by the Scientologists. "I'm no Scientologist" he tells me. "But this place seriously needs some help." He intends to check every patients vitals, make sure nobody is spiking a fever, but first he must clean all the trash. The place is more refugee camp than hospital. "These people worry that the hospital will fall on top of them," Walter tells me, "But they are more likely to die from a secondary infections spreading out here, than from being crushed by a wall."

Further up the walkway, the wounds are more gaping, the pain more severe. Surgeons from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York inspect stumps. Many are wide open -- flesh, bone, tendons exposed. Dr. Alice, from Dartmouth, tells me that if infection is present, they can't suture the stump. "The infection has to drain and the dead tissue has been cleaned up before we can sew them back up." Dr. Alice has been here for seven days. She tells me that at first there wasn't enough painkillers or antibiotics. "But it's getting better. We have most of the supplies we need," she says. Later, a doctor from Mt. Sinai comes out of the operating room and confides they've run out of alcohol to sterilize the equipment. "The operating room has come to a full stop. We need the alcohol."

The closer you get to the operating room, the more gruesome the scene. I'm too squeamish to go further. I can hear the scream.

Right next to the operating room is a tent, the equivalent of an Intensive Care Unit. A woman, with breasts exposed, foams at the mouth. An elderly man, forced to lay in the sun, moans. A beautiful young boy asks the doctor if he will ever play soccer. A young woman, paralyzed from the neck down, is flanked by a grieving family. Everyone else seems to be fast asleep, or dying.

There is one man, frail, sunken, exhausted, that looks like he is seconds from being dead. His breath is shallow, almost irregular. He is covered in flies.

Two days later we return to the hospital. I am convinced that many have died since. But there is evident progress. The hospital entryway is no longer overflowing with patients. Tents have been erected, resembling more of a MASH unit than a makeshift camp. Several patients have been dismissed. And yes, a handful or so, have died.

The frail, sunken man, covered in flies, is one of them. His body was stacked in the overflowing morgue. Until someone noticed his leg twitching. He was brought back from the dead. He now lies peacefully on a soiled cot. Flies no longer cover his torso. He breathes easily.

The doctor now calls him "Black Jesus."

24 Comments

COMMENTS

Bank of America closed my credit card and didn't tell me, and then upped my interest rate before the law passed. That BofA commercial is hardly accurate.

Thanks for the Haiti report.

Mark / January 22, 2010 12:31 PM

Seeing another Bank of America commercial to fortress their public relations standing is
tantamount to distasteful. If we had reasonable
consumer protections in place these ads
would be banned as fraudulently abusive because
they purposefully misrepresent the larger picture of Bank of America's lending policies.

Michele / January 23, 2010 9:45 PM

Smith sounds a bit rough and is noticeably disturbed by the looting he's witnessed (since, as he says, he's been in a lot of conflict zones it must be pretty bad).

Looking forward to seeing his Frontline report on Haiti in future; be careful Martin, and keep up the good work.

Lorraine / January 24, 2010 12:36 AM

Please keep in mind the difference between 'refugees' and 'internally displaced people (IDP)." Refugees are people who leave their countries and go to another country; thus, in this case, reporters are talking about IDPs, not refugees. This has legal implications as there are international laws to protect refugees and only guidelines for IDPs.

Monica Alzate / January 24, 2010 1:55 AM

While Martin is disturbed by the looting-we all are-but must keep in mind this isn't a "conflict zone". It's a disaster-and I think I myself or my husband might be "looting" if we or our children needed food, drink, shelter or anything that may provide a means of protection or comfort.


Lisa Erikson / January 24, 2010 2:46 PM

I think Smith's reference to a "conflict zone" is appropriate in that he's talking about what desperate people in the midst of chaos and devastation can be reduced to. Don't misunderstand his use of the word "conflict"--he's not talking here about war per se. Disaster, whether made be nature or man, can bring out both the very best and very worst instincts in human beings.

Yes, of course, if you and your family were facing starvation you would do whatever you had to to keep yourself and especially your precious babies alive. But let's don't kid ourselves that that's what's happening in all cases. There is need and there is greed and I think what troubled Martin Smith was the lawlessness and even callousness he saw--recall he mentioned watching people stepping over dead bodies as they looted. That is not the behavior of people just trying to find food and water to sustain themselves.

Lorraine / January 24, 2010 5:00 PM

BANK OF AMERICA HAS A BUSINESS MODEL THAT CAUSES REVULSION BY CUSTOMERS WHO JUST WAIT TO STOP DOING BUSINESS WITH THEM. THE FEDERAL GOVT. DID THE AMERICAN PEOPLE NO FAVORS IN PROPING THEM UP. WE SHOULD HAVE LET THEM FAIL SO THAT ANOTHER BANK, HOPEFULLY, WITH A BETTER BUSINESS MODEL COULD SERVE THE PUBLIC.

BUCK BUFORD / January 24, 2010 5:41 PM

And a Happy New Year for you all working on FRONTLINE! Keep up the good news1

anthony / January 25, 2010 12:50 PM

you can't expect an on-site body count to be made. they'll have to check census and birth records. some will say others were killed, but really weren't (fraud), amnesia, orphans, elderly, criminals, this earthquake is going to bring out the best and worst in people; disasters usually do, the list of possibilities abound and will take weeks.

mia / January 26, 2010 7:14 PM

Bank of America and their propaganda...what a pathetic and glib attempt to spin a web. I met the CFO when he stayed at my hotel. Once he had left I consciously had to remind myself he wasn't the Pope, seriously. It was a very surreal (ethereal) experience.

BOA victim # 8,937,534 / January 27, 2010 4:18 PM

I'm disturbed by this template that Marty may be falling into about the looting - it's cause and effect. If the aid is not getting to where it needs to be, people have no choice but to break in and get supplies wherever they can. Reporters are dropping in and pretending that there was a functioning government with characteristics like law and order and regular garbage pickup and morgues before the earthquake. There was not. Haiti's government collapsed a long time before that earthquake brought the buildings down.

June Cross / January 29, 2010 3:43 PM

Shouldn't we just be one earth by now?

John Kem / January 29, 2010 9:17 PM

I am increasingly disturbed by all the media attention to "looting" mentioned in the same breath as the fact that there is no food or water being distributed, and that people can't get money out of destroyed banks. In my view, "looting" is a manipulative word used to describe individuals in a dire situation who refuse to sit back and die of starvation while the international community gets their act together. I would call it "creative survival," under the circumstances. I understand that in times of peace, the rule of law is absolutely necessary, but in this "conflict zone" as the journalist is calling Haiti, I would rather not even hear reports about such looting. It makes Haitians seem like thugs, rather than the resilient survivors that they are. Would we rather see dead bodies on tv, or looting, for at least the looters are alive?

Ihotu / January 30, 2010 10:55 AM

I think it's important for reporters to say plainly what they are seeing without concern for how the descriptions will "play" with television audiences. If looting--one of the uglier fall-outs of a natural disaster on this scale in a country filled with a long-exploited people--is what is going on, than Martin Smith and others would not be doing their jobs in avoiding saying so. To expect otherwise is to misunderstand, perhaps willfully, what is (and is not) the responsibility of a journalist. There is I think an implication in some of the comments posted here that for a white reporter like Smith to even bring up the issue of looting is somehow racist. That is not an honest argument. As I observed in an earlier post, events like this inevitably inspire the best and trigger the worst in human behavior. To report only the heroics and ignore the unpleasant rest does not do any of us credit.

Lorraine / February 3, 2010 1:54 PM

And is anyone as dumbstruck as I by Frontline producer Marcela Gaviria's 1/20 observation of the activities of Scientologists in the midst of this calamity? You know, it's good of John Travolta to want to help the Haitian people at such a desperate time--but was flying in a bunch of advertisements for the Church of Scientology really the best he could come up with??! It would be hilarious if the situation weren't so serious, so horribly dire.

Lorraine / February 3, 2010 2:16 PM

In a situation like this there is no looting only a means of survival.

tk / February 5, 2010 7:57 PM

John Travolta has a lot of money... he could had at least sent out a crew of people to distribute food and water because that is what they need most right now... not fliers.

Liz / February 6, 2010 1:12 AM

USAID and the WFP will have a lot to answer for, this lack of coordination and hoarding of food at the airport is causing much of the problem. People are staying in PAP because they can see the supplies but they are not being released, our people on the ground are not being released food despite feeding 30 000 people a day. If we want to bargain with those in control of supplies, our people are supposed to be in meetings from 0800-1800hrs for the next few weeks. Sunday we found a camp of 50,000 people who had yet received NO AID AT ALL! For the real people doing real work reports see http://eq.glowmi.org/feb9.html or Facebook GLOW Ministries International.

Robyn / February 10, 2010 8:20 PM

If you look at Honduras after hurricane Mitch in 1998 one has a very good look at what happens in disaster relief, sometimes referred to as disaster capitalism.

Chris / February 11, 2010 5:36 AM

Where ever the USA is they say they are doing good things but only a few get benefits and the rest starve.The powerful few do business selling what they get in surplus and a roaring trade is estblished. Supplies lying undistributed could be distributed if they sought locals to come forward and pay them. The locals know the pople and where they are unlikie the Americans, well meaning they may be, they are no good.Bill Clinton is supposed to be coordinating the relief effort.We see him handing over parcels from the Aircraft to someone.That is not co-ordinating; it's distributing.

Sam.

Sam Johnson / February 16, 2010 5:05 AM

This is great reporting, I appreciate being to access the content through your rss.

Can't wait for Smith's upcoming piece. I am a HUGE fan of all you do. You really are the last man standing of the fourth estate.

Edward Needham / February 21, 2010 9:01 PM

Why is there not more Frontline production? The best programs play over and over without a lot of new programming. Frontline used to be one of the best non-fiction programs on TV. We need more Frontline.

Christina / February 23, 2010 1:42 AM

Lorraine, "looting" is defined as "the wrongful taking of anything from a store." I question the moral judgement in the word - and any reporter, black, latino, white, or Arab, who operates without thinking about the context of their words is a reporter who could be doing better.

I also can't wait for Marty's story on Haiti. He brings a sensitivity and care for craft to everything he does. But too many reporters have gone to Haiti and been thinking "Katrina." I'll be interested to see how much we hear about gunshots and looting in the wake of the Chile earthquake today. I'll bet dimes to donuts that what we hear about are people desperate for food and water getting it wherever they can.

June / February 27, 2010 3:35 PM

@ June: I'm going to assume that we're really still talking about the people of Haiti with this debate, and reply to your comment thusly:

Looting is further defined as "to steal valuables from a place during a time of disorder or confusion". It strikes me as ironic that you would complain of reporters who cover Haiti thinking of Katrina since, in your defense of those in Haiti who have looted, you seem to be doing the same thing.

I think the people of Haiti have been dealt a long series of terrible hands, of which this earthquake may be the worst. I understand that desperate people do what they have to to survive. Especially in this disaster's first days, one can only have compassion for the terrible choices presented to a people who had so little to begin with and then are suddenly left with nothing, less than nothing.

All that said, looting is still wrong. In the horrifying circumstances looting may be understandable and even unavoidable, but let's be honest anyway and call it what it is, because the moral--and legal--judgment applies nevertheless. To suggest that it doesn't, on the assumption or expectation that the same rules of behavior are not being applied equally to Haitians and Chileans, is wrongheaded and fundamentally dishonest.

Or, as my grandmother used to say: two wrongs do not make a right.

Racism, real or presumed, is not a free pass for criminality. Anywhere.

Lorraine / March 25, 2010 6:02 PM
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